The Ghost in the Machine:
Spirituality and Physics

authored by Richard W. Ely

    The sacredness of Earth and Cosmos makes up the spiritual foundation of Paganism and all other Nature religions.  Indeed, the natural world is the principal sacred text of such religions.  In order to practice a Nature religion in a fully conscious manner, it is important to incorporate scientific understanding into one’s spiritual practice.  Otherwise, if transpersonal information is not vetted by science, one may formulate silly delusions concerning the physical realm that detract from the validity of the spiritual message.

   Physics deals with the fundamental laws of the universe and is the intellectual foundation upon which all other sciences rest.  Physical constants such as the force of gravity and the speed of light are Nature’s divine writ, far more compelling than the Ten Commandments because they are verifiable and cannot be ignored.  Two of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th Century, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity, deal with matters that have profound spiritual import.  These two disciplines have shown that physical reality is far stranger than common sense would suppose.  The reason that quantum mechanical effects are not apparent in everyday life is that human beings are extremely large compared to the atomic realm where the rules of quantum mechanics dominate.

The Question of Size

    Many people are aware that the visible cosmos is twenty-five to thirty billion light years in diameter, but very few seem to appreciate that, in relation to our size, the microcosmic realm is far vaster.  This is may seem paradoxical when we consider the great age and enormous size of the universe, but when we compare ourselves to the subatomic realm, this is apparent.  Consider the following proportion: the human body is about ten billion times bigger than a large atom, whereas the Sun is “only” one billion times larger than a person.  Compared to atoms, we are larger than stars are compared to us.

    The range of length and time scales in Nature are so vast that using simple numerical values is cumbersome and can sometimes be misleading.  Before going further, let’s review some basic mathematical notation for those of you who slept through science and math in high school.  Exponential notation, in this case powers of ten, is the most convenient form of mathematical notation to use when dealing with very large and very small numbers.  Thus, one billion can be written either as 1,000,000,000 or as 109, which signifies one multiplied nine times by ten.  The number ten can be written as 10 or as 101, which signifies one multiplied once by ten.  Similarly, the number one can be written either as 1 or as 100 – one multiplied zero times by ten.   One-billionth can be written either as 0.000,000,001 or as 10-9, signifying one divided nine times by ten.  Finally, remember that when two exponential numbers are multiplied, the exponents are added.  When exponential numbers are divided, the exponents are subtracted.  Hence the convenience of logarithms in the days before calculators.

    When viewing the vast range of scale in the cosmos, scientists consider a measurement to be fairly well constrained when the uncertainty is less than an a factor of ten, i.e.  it is known to order of magnitude, and reasonably precise when the uncertainty is less than a factor of two.  Interesting new phenomena generally appear whenever an order of magnitude advance is made, as with the energy of particle accelerators, or in precision, as with the Hubbell Space Telescope.  Indeed, orders of magnitude are the basic counting units of physics, as the following discussion will reveal.

    To get a personal perspective on the dimensions of the atomic and cosmic realms, first remember that most adult human beings are between one and two meters long, which is 1.5 x 100 meters in exponential notation.  The smallest physical entity for which we have some observational evidence for its size is the electron.  Electrons, when observed as a particle rather than a wave, are thought to be about 10-18 meters in diameter (but this value is not well constrained and may be smaller).  Quarks, the constituents of protons, neutrons and mesons, are also thought to be about 10-18 meters in diameter.  Protons and neutrons, the particles that make up the nuclei of all atoms, are about 10-15 meters in diameter.  Therefore, a human being is fifteen orders of magnitude larger than protons and neutrons, and eighteen orders of magnitude larger than quarks and electrons.

    Now consider that the solar system is about ten billion kilometers (1013 meters) in diameter out to the orbit of Pluto.  Therefore, the solar system is “only” thirteen orders of magnitude larger than a human being.  Proportionally, our bodies are 100,000 times larger than an electron than the solar system is larger than us.  Now consider that one hundred light years is 1018 meters.  The proportion can be restated as follows: a person is to an electron as a distance of one hundred light years is to a person.

    The Milky Way galaxy is about 1021 meters in diameter (105 light years), eight orders of magnitude larger than the solar system and 1,000 times larger than a person is in relation to an electron.  The farthest visible galaxies are somewhat more than 1026 meters distant from Earth (twelve billion light years, to be precise), a distance that is about thirteen orders of magnitude larger than the diameter of the solar system.  Proportionally, the solar system is as much larger than an human being as the visible universe is larger than the solar system.  The largest mountain on Earth, Mauna Loa, which has a height of about 104 meters (10 kilometers) above the sea floor, is twenty-two orders of magnitude larger than an electron, whereas the visible universe is twenty-two orders of magnitude larger than Mauna Loa.

    The smallest region of space that has any scientific meaning is called the Planck length, named after the German physicist Max Planck, who is regarded as the founder of quantum mechanics.  The Planck length, 10-35 meter, can be considered the quantum of length.  (A quantum is the smallest possible value of matter and radiation.) This unit is seventeen orders of magnitude smaller than an electron or quark, which are 10-18 meters.  What phenomena occur in the great span of size variation that exists in the realm smaller than 10-18 meters is the subject of considerable speculation by theoretical physicists.  Strange ideas abound of cosmic strings, mini black holes, worm holes in space, and convoluted higher dimensional warping of the geometry of space-time.

    (For a fuller discussion of the various aspects of cosmic and subatomic scale, see “Powers of Ten” by Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison, Scientific American Library, 1994.)

The Question of Time

    The fundamental unit of time, called Planck time, is 10-43 seconds, which is the time it takes light to travel one Planck length.  This unit can be considered the quantum of time, because no shorter time interval has any scientific meaning at our present level of understanding.  To appreciate how incredibly short Planck time is relative to human awareness, consider that the average human life span is somewhat more than 109 seconds.  The universe is about 1017 seconds old.  The shortest duration events that we know of are about 10-23 seconds long – twenty orders of magnitude longer than Planck time.  Events that last for 10-23 seconds include the time it takes for two electrons to recoil from each other when colliding exactly head on in a particle accelerator, and the duration of the shortest known radioactive half life, that of an isotope of helium, He5.

    But what about the interval from 10-23 to 10-43 seconds? There are 1020 Planck-time units in that span, 1000 times more than the age of the universe in seconds.  Clearly, there is room for a vast array of phenomena at these extremely short time scales, another universe of history if you will.  If consciousness is immanent in matter, as many people have experienced, then it is likely that the ghost in the machine dwells in this microcosmic realm of extreme high-frequency time variation and minute size.

Light and Darkness

    A general theme in mythology is that light was born out of darkness.  This understanding is true in the cosmological sense as well.  The cosmic fireball that erupted from the Big Bang was so hot as to be opaque to electromagnetic radiation.  After 300,000 years, the universe had cooled to the point that it became transparent to light.

    A classic account of the early history of the universe is Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes (Basic Books,1988).  As the title implies, the most significant events of cosmic evolution took place in the first three minutes (i.e., about 1045 Planck-time units), and the evolutionary action was pretty much over by the time it became transparent to light, at 1056 Planck-time units.  The current age of the universe is about 1060 Planck-time units.

    The clinching evidence for the Big Bang cosmology was the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964.  A diffuse glow of photons fills the cosmos in all directions.  Minute variations in the intensity of these photons map out density fluctuations in the primordial universe as of 300,000 years after the Big Bang.  But note, the cosmic background radiation marks the horizon of observational knowledge of the early universe, because before that time the photons in the radiation were scattered, so it is impossible to directly observe events that took place before the universe was 300,000 years old.

    Before that time is the realm of darkness, literally (albeit extremely hot, dense and energetic darkness).  If we are to understand where we came from, we must go into this darkness, at least in the intellectual sense.  Darkness is the senior partner of light; darkness is mystery and the unknown; it is the fertile ground of Being.  To flee from darkness is to flee from our source.  One of the most important spiritual tasks facing us today is to reclaim darkness from the fear and rejection that it has labored under for the last 3000 years.  If you find yourself trapped in spiritual darkness, remember that seeing is not the only way of knowing.  Intuition, feeling and sensation all are available to help you navigate through and extricate yourself.


    Einstein’s theory of relativity gives an entirely new perspective on the anti-material bias of the ascentionist spiritual traditions.  The mathematical demonstration of the equivalence of matter and energy, E=MC2, effectively resolves the long-standing spiritual dichotomy between light and matter.  Light is pure energy, with photons constituting the quantum of electromagnetic radiation.  Visible light constitutes a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which extends from radio waves at the low-frequency end, to X rays and gamma rays at the high frequency end.  Matter is highly condensed light, as the light released by thermonuclear reactions in the Sun amply demonstrates.  The Sun, of course, produces light by transmuting hydrogen to helium, with a slight loss of mass that is converted to light.  One might even say that if light is the good, as all “light workers” would agree, then matter must be better, because the good is concentrated in matter.  In addition, since light is equated with consciousness in virtually all spiritual traditions, then matter, being made out of the stuff of consciousness, must be conscious as well.

    Another result of the theory of relativity was to do away with the idea of an absolute frame of reference in space.  This is a consequence of the constancy of the velocity of light as measured by all observers, no matter how fast they are going relative to one another.  Synchronicty in space-time depends on the frame of reference adopted and the relative locations of observers and the event in question.  There is no absolute reference frame, no privileged observer.  Thus if a nova was the “star in the east” reported from Bethlehem, the actual explosion must have occurred hundreds or thousands of years before.  The synchronicty would have been due to a “coincidental” arrival of the wave front of electromagnetic radiation from the exploding star at Earth at the precise time of the birth in question.

    Clusters of fortunate and unusual coincidences often appear in one’s personal life after a spiritual awakening or a breakthrough in consciousness takes place.  I have long puzzled over this phenomenon because it is too well attested to be denied.  It seems likely to me that such synchronistic events result from the new spiritual perspective.  Perhaps the observer has changed location to a higher dimensional realm and the new perspective that results allows coincidences to manifest in daily life that would not have occurred under the old perspective.  Or perhaps the coincidences are there all along and one simply does not perceive them until spiritually ready.

Quantum Mechanics and Nonlocality

    The experimental verification of non-locality, i.e., the ability of subatomic particles to apparently communicate at speeds faster than light, has been repeated many times since 1982.  Experiments of this type involve the creation of two “entangled” photons or electrons using a beam splitter, then sending the entangled particles to distant locations.  Because the particles are entangled, the quantum states of both particles are correlated.  When state of one particle is measured and observed, say its spin or polarization, the state of the other will be determined simultaneously.  Rather than being due to superluminar communication, this phenomenon actually is a demonstration of the unitary consciousness of the universe.

    The Conscious Universe: Part and Whole in Modern Physical Theory  (Springer-Verlag, 1990) by Robert Nideau and Menas Kaftos develops this theme at great length.  This densely-written book is for non-scientists and is well worth the effort to read.

    In essence, because the universe is an undivided whole, when one “part,” the observer in this case, knows the state of an entangled fundamental particle, then the universe simultaneously knows the state of the other particle in question and the particle behaves accordingly in the second detector.  The speed of consciousness must be very high indeed.  Finally, consider the fact that all quanta of matter and energy in the universe were entangled during the Big Bang fireball and have interacted in some manner during the subsequent history of the cosmos.  These quanta are all part of a unified holistic system.  Non-locality is a fundamental property of the universe as a whole.

Wave-Particle Duality

    Now consider the wave-particle duality of photons and electrons.  Measured one way, they appear as particles – discrete point-like entities.  Measured another way, they appear as waves, which are spread out in space and have no precise location.  The famous two-slit experiment demonstrates this phenomenon.  If a beam of photons (or electrons) is directed through a screen with a single slit, they will appear on the detector as a single bright dot indicative of particle-like behavior.  If two closely spaced slits are present, the photons will interact with each other and behave as waves.  The resultant pattern on the detector will be an interference pattern, a series of bright and dark bands that are characteristic of wave interaction.  The interference pattern will even appear if we reduce the flow of photons (or electrons) to a sequence of individual quanta.  A single “particle” can simultaneously pass through both slits and interact with itself to produce an interference pattern, but only if we are ignorant of which slit it passed through.  Place a detector at each slit such that one can know which slit the photon passed through and the interference pattern will disappear and the photons behave as a particles, producing a pair of dots on the detector screen opposite the slits.

    There is even a way to conduct this experiment such that the decision whether to measure a photon as a particle or a wave is made after it has passed through the slits and before it reaches the detector: John A Wheeler’s “delayed-choice” experiment.  As before, the photons behave as particles or waves, depending on the method of detection.  Thus an observation made after the photon has passed through the screen determines whether it previously behaved as a particle or wave! It is experiments like this that have forced the conclusion that the observer has to be considered part of the experimental apparatus in all-quantum physics experiments.  The conscious intent of the observer apparently determines the behavior of an elementary particle.  This seems suspiciously like magic to me: mind, will and intent interacting with the physical world to effect a change.  If the mind of the observer can influence the behavior of fundamental particles, then it is reasonable to presume that it can influence large aggregations of such particles.


    Niels Bohr originated the principal of complementarity for describing the nature of physical reality in a quantum mechanical universe.  Complementarity is a logical system for acquiring scientific information.  In essence it states that to completely describe a situation, all aspects must be considered, especially those that are seemingly contradictory.  The wave-particle duality of photons is the classic example of complementarity.  A photon is a gestalt of wave and particle, sometimes described as a wave packet, which is more than the sum of the two.

    Complementarity involves mutually exclusive methods of observation, such as when we measure either the momentum or position of a subatomic particle.  Both are necessary for a complete description of the particle, but the act of measurement of one parameter inevitably alters the other.  This relationship, known as Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, precludes precision in measurement above a certain threshold that is defined by the quantum of action, Planck’s constant.  The result is a constant sum, the more precisely you know one value, the less precisely you can know the other.

    Complementarity can be adopted as a general philosophical principle.  In the last issue of PanGaia I discussed at some length my view that science and mysticism are complimentary ways of perceiving the ultimate nature of reality.  If one adopts either way exclusively the result is a skewed perception that misses the full glory of creation.  In any dispute, political or otherwise, it is important to hear all sides, because each one will necessarily be incomplete and biased.

    New-Age solipsism is a case in point.  The belief that we create our own reality, and consequently are responsible for all the good and bad things that happen to us is widespread in the New Age community.  Certainly we create the immediate circumstances of our lives, and the larger social environment is co-created with everyone, but earthquakes and the global climate are far beyond anyone's control.  I have heard of people who will not go to California for fear of causing it to fall into the sea.  The mind boggles at this kind of hubris.

    Yet it is also true that we are one with the Boundless, and the perception of being discrete, autonomous entitys is an illusion.  Therefore, because the cosmos is an undivided whole, it is the entire cosmos, as manifested in each of us, that creates the circumstances of our lives.


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